Redshirt freshmen give Mavs a different look this season

Mike Melillo is one of a trio of redshirt freshmen the Colorado Mesa men’s basketball team is counting on this season. Melillo may start, according to coach Jim Heaps, as the Mavs open the season tonight.

Mesa State College men’s basketball players are usually brought along slowly.

Unless they are junior college transfers, players new to the program normally redshirt their freshman year, see a little playing time the next season and then compete for playing time as sophomores.

In the program’s first year as Colorado Mesa University, veteran coach Jim Heaps is taking a different approach with a mix of three seniors, three juniors, four sophomores and three redshirt freshmen on his bench.

“It’s an interesting mix,” Heaps said. “This group (of redshirt freshmen) is gym rats. Even during (last) season, practice would be over and they’d stay in the gym. They’d stay late and work on their game.

“These guys are very dedicated that way. It’s rare when you have three kids in the same class at the same time with that mix of ability and athleticism.”

The three redshirt freshmen — Mike Melillo, Landon Vermeer and Daniel Estes — will all see ample playing time this season for the Mavericks, who return three starters and eight lettermen from last season’s NCAA tournament team. Mesa finished 18-10 (14-8 RMAC).

The Mavericks open the season against Minot State (N.D.) at 5 tonight in the Dixie State Classic in St. George, Utah. Saturday night, they play No. 22 Seattle Pacific University at 5 p.m.

“All three will be in the mix,” Heaps said. “Melillo will start for us. Estes will be in the mix at point and Landon will see playing time more and more as we go.

“The best thing about freshmen is they become sophomores. They understand the game. They will get better.”

Melillo, a 6-foot-5 guard from Fairview High in Boulder, wasn’t content just making the roster.

“It was hard sitting out last year because you’re so used to playing basketball every day of your life,” Melillo said. “Sitting out a whole year was very tough for Daniel, Landon and I. Now, we expect to play a lot and contribute to the winning attitude we have.”

Melillo and Vermeer, a 6-2 guard from Littleton, gained valuable experience in a Denver pro-am league after their senior year of high school.

“That was a great way to get to know each other and each other’s game,” Melillo said. “We became really good friends and played against really good competition. It was a great experience for both of us.”

Estes, a 5-11 guard from Laramie, Wyo., will see time at point guard with sophomores Kevin Screen and Clay Kame, a Central High graduate. They replace Kalonji Paschal, who returned home to Portland, Ore., for family reasons.

It’s a unique situation in that Heaps would usually try to recruit a junior college player to play the point.

“I think it’s an indicator how much we think of Kevin, Clay Kame and with Danny, we feel comfortable at point guard,” Heaps said. “We didn’t go recruit anybody, we are really good about the kids returning.”

Sophomore Mac Alexander joins the team after an injury ended his football career.

Heaps has several post players back: Colton and Chandler Burgon, Michael Bear, Jeff Hart and Blake Francom.

“Post is our strength,” Heaps said. “We have two juniors, two seniors playing the four and five (forward and center) for us right now.”

Bear, a Delta High graduate who walked on to the program five years ago, will get an opportunity to start on a regular basis at center after coming off the bench the past three years.

“I like to think of us as eight- to 10-man rotations more than a starting group,” Heaps said. “I like to have scoring off the bench, too. Even though Mike is a very talented kid, he had to come off the bench. He’s a very gifted player. Where he’s come from as a walk-on five years ago to the player he is now is pretty neat.”

The Mavericks’ schedule will be a tough test, but if they can pass it, they could be making another trip to the NCAA Central Region tournament.

Seattle Pacific defeated the University of Arizona in an exhibition earlier this year. Minot State, in provisional NCAA status, joins the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference next year.

Mesa hosts Southern Virginia University, Dixie State and Colorado State-Pueblo in its annual Clarion Inn Thanksgiving Classic on Nov. 25-26 at Brownson Arena. RMAC play begins the first weekend of December.

“Southern Virginia won 20 games last year and Dixie, which was 23-6 last year, had a lead against BYU (in an exhibition last week). These are the teams you want to play,” Heaps said. “You want to play the kind of teams that will get you ready for conference play. We’re thrilled to have the schedule we have.”


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